311’s Chad Sexton: Let It Be

Chad Sexton: Let It Be

Chad Sexton

It’s always sunny in 311-land. While a great deal of the United States endures the year’s first notable winter storm – life-threatening subzero temperatures in the Midwest; two feet of snow in the Northeast; and more than 10,000 flights impacted across the country – Chad Sexton is relaxing on the grounds of his estate in Fillmore, California, where the temperature is a balmy 74 degrees and the avocado trees are far from dead.

Sexton and his four bandmates are originally from Omaha, Nebraska, and spent their early years cutting tracks a few miles from the swaying cornfields that define the region’s economy. But the almost 26-year-old group – widely known for its signature mix of rap, rock, and reggae, and the string of popular singles that helped define so-called “modern rock” through the ’90s and early 2000s – is strongly identified with the Golden State. There’s something about the band’s multi-part harmonies, crunchy guitars, and hop-step tempo that evokes sunnier climes. (Or maybe it was just the peroxide blond look some of the guys adopted in the ’90s.)

Indeed, Sexton has been living in California since 1992, years before the band skyrocketed to post-grunge prominence. For many years he called busy Los Angeles home, but in 2008 sought a bigger plot of land and a more calming environment. (Yes, you read that right: a rock drummer whose playing volume regularly approaches the threshold for human pain wanted a little peace and quiet.) Fillmore fit the bill.

“Fillmore’s probably 45 minutes to an hour outside of Hollywood. There’s a valley, but then there are small mountain ranges on the north and south sides of it. It’s really beautiful California land – real peaceful. It’s been a fantastic change. More space, less people, less noise.”

And more time to focus. Sexton and his bandmates spent much of 2013 hard at work on their latest full-length album, Stereolithic. It’s the band’s eleventh since their 1993 major label debut, Music, and a return to working with producer Scott Ralston, who handled production duties on many of the band’s most popular albums.

“We sort of got our old team back together – musically, production-wise. We wanted to get back to what we know we do. We’re all older; lots of changes have taken place. We wanted to pull out some of the essence of what the band has built: the styles, the tones. Scott has probably assisted on most records we’ve done. We decided, ’Hey, why don’t we team up with Scott again and see what happens?’ It’s great because he knows us really well. He knows our style really well. Working with him, we were able to pull out a good amount of material.”

Enough for 15 final tracks, in fact. The styles of the songs reflect the band’s sonic diversity over the years: “Five Of Everything” could easily be played back-to-back with 1999’s bouncy “Come Original” without the listener noticing the 15-year gap between them; the thrashy “Existential Hero” can hang with 1995’s “Down” any day of the week. It’s not all a retread, either: “Showdown” begins as a full-on, four-to-the-floor rocker before ceding to a reggae groove; “The Call” could be a late-era Thrice track if it were more ponderous and reverb-heavy.

For Sexton’s drumming, Stereolithic represents a return to a comfortable center after a string of records in which he sought to broaden his tonal horizons with less familiar producers. In 1996, Sexton told this very magazine that Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and Terry Bozzio were early influences. Though he retains his taste for fusion drumming, Sexton was looking for something more visceral as he entered the studio.

“We just came off a couple of records of trying out new ideas, different ways of playing, different styles. For me, that might be different fills, or different simplified patterns. That was good – it’s showing me and teaching me something I’m not naturally coming up with and getting input from a professional like Bob Rock on things I should try. Now, we’re trying to be us again. But it’s different – you’re taking the new things and incorporating them into your drum writing.”

Sexton admits that he’s never been an obsessive drummer – he embraces formal technique, but doesn’t let the potential for complexity overwhelm his contribution to a song. On Stereolithic, Sexton still allowed himself to tweak his roadmaps and fills, but not too much. It’s reflective of the kind of player that Sexton, 43, has become as he navigates the middle stage of his career.

“I try not to overthink anything. Brains tend to destroy art, I believe. Putting too much intellect into art. I think about it just a little, to make it cohesive. That style has worked out for me and made me think I should think about my drum beats more. There’s something that’s real special about coming from a creative place that you’re keeping your intellect out of. This album, I’m trying to combine both those styles.”

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